July 22, 2007
F5 Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century
Hyperion/Miramax Books: 308 pp., $25.95
WHEN the wind begins to switch — the house to pitch and the hinges start to unhitch, what happens next in the Technicolor world of real life is, generally, not rich. If you have the misfortune to be bonked on the head and swept into the funnel of a tornado, your house will likely not leave Kansas intact and end up in Munchkinland atop a wicked witch. But, like Dorothy — and all epic heroes — your task ahead will be to get back home.
If disaster is about the disturbance of home — a disequilibrium of the place, person or thing that makes you feel safe — then tornadoes are the “archetypal American disaster,” Mark Levine writes in his new book, “F5,” about the tornado outbreak of April 3 and 4, 1974, when 148 twisters clawed through 13 states, covering more than 2,500 miles from Michigan to Mississippi, killing 330 people and injuring more than 5,400. Property damage was estimated in excess of $600 million. Tornadoes, born of thunderstorms, strike somewhere in the United States about 100,000 times each year, Levine writes.
Part of their fascination is that they are so personal. They trace a thin line, “the finger of God,” demolishing your home but leaving your neighbor’s untouched, creating a path of destruction that seems both unpredictable and filled with intent. The book’s title refers to the Fujita wind-intensity scale, which organizes tornadoes from F0s (strong enough to break branches off trees) to the rare F5s, which generate winds of 260 to 320 mph — enough to lift a house off its foundation.
Disaster, Levine reminds us, is always local. And the best way to understand it, he says, is to view it up close, to see how it changes the lives of those who continue to dwell in disorder after their plight is no longer news. In “F5,” the poet and teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop focuses on the people of northern Alabama’s Limestone County.
The book begins with a short chapter in breathless italics: Two young lovers, a high school football star and his willowy girlfriend, in a car on a country road. We know something is going to happen. It isn’t going to be good. We get inside the head of 15-year-old Felicia Golden, who sets us up for a true story that reads like a thriller. Levine’s cast of characters is long and unwieldy: a Vietnam vet living at home with his parents; an affable barroom brawler turned hair dresser and Civil Defense director, who is given to saying, “I’m dumb as grits”; an African American preacher and manager of a local union; a sheriff who gets paid by the arrest; and a coroner who also is a bank manager.
We follow their stories minute-by-minute as the storm hits. These are good, ordinary folk who survive an extraordinary event. But while Levine treats them gingerly and with compassion, they sound like talking heads in a documentary. The information is important, but we do not feel compelled to watch.
When writing about nature it makes sense to use the passive voice. Things happen. It’s hard to attribute agency, unless you do it on a grand scale (deity) or a chaotic physical scale (the “butterfly effect” of nonlinear dynamics, which posits that the flapping of tiny wings can trigger a tornado). But it’s tempting to personify, to impute intent. Poets, novelists and playwrights have long used weather to create a mood. Dark and stormy nights do not auger well. Happy endings are often in lambent light.
Levine, by contrast, attempts to make a surprising — and topsy-turvy — argument about the meaning of the tornado outbreak of 1974: “Only rarely does nature step forward and assert itself with true ferocity. At such moments, the stories of history and of nature seem to overlap — however briefly, however irrationally. Nature captures the spirit of its times, and does so with a clarity that eludes the daily news.” Indeed the 16-hour period in the spring of 1974 was an odd and turbulent historical moment. Levine’s diagnosis: “A certain collective mood disorder had set in.”
The symptoms: On April 3, 1974, just as the first Watergate indictments were being handed down, President Nixon was found to have underpaid his taxes by more than $430,000. Heiress Patty Hearst, kidnapped for two months, appeared on a videotape announcing her name as “Tania” and her allegiance to her captors.
Young men were coming home from Vietnam, people were waiting in long lines for gas, and the crime rate soared. Tragically for some baseball fans, Hank Aaron was poised, in the first game of the season, to tie Babe Ruth’s home run record. Popular culture captures the spirit of the times and at this time disaster films packed movie theaters — giant swarms of bees, earthquakes and towering infernos.
But art follows nature; depictions of catastrophe do not create it. History is what happens after calamity strikes. “A venerable strain of magical thinking sees natural disaster as an expression of — or retribution for — human failings,” Levine writes. “Events related by nothing more than substantial coincidence are nonetheless related. Timing is everything.”
What, then, is the logic of a tornado outbreak at a time when streaking was the most talked-about topic of the day? When Terry Jack’s maudlin “Seasons in the Sun” topped the hit list and nostalgic TV shows like “Happy Days” and “The Waltons” brought families together in front of the electronic hearth? What is the relation? Levine’s argument seems almost Biblical: Sinners and non-sinners alike were being punished by the finger of an angry god.
Apart from the problem inherent in linking natural disaster to social malaise, the book also shows a lack of passion in translating natural phenomena. The best local history opens a window into larger issues, teaches us about things beyond our ken. The best disaster books explicate things we fear but don’t understand. “F5” does not make us into mini-meteorologists. The unpacking of the science of weather is cursory, unsatisfying and bereft of poetry.
Here’s Levine’s explanation of how tornadoes are created: “Some meteorologists believe that the rear flank downdraft, originating in the middle-to-lower reaches of the storm and making a furious descent, cuts into the mesocyclone on its way down, becoming wrapped around the mesocyclone’s rotating updraft.”
The intent, however, is clear: “Out of a collection of their stories,” Levine writes, “some of them contradictory, some mythologizing, some told only with great reluctance — a world can seem to emerge.” The people of Limestone County tend toward churchliness and are mostly accepting of their lot and lives, even though we see close up the horrors they endured. But the asides on his idiosyncratic view of history and causality seem to obscure more than illuminate, and take something away from the rich individual stories he is trying to tell.
Nature loves equilibrium. Storms are a way to put things electromagnetically right in the physical world, not a countervailing force to an off-kilter social, cultural and political environment. This sepia-toned book lacks the vibrancy of those that manage to make disaster come alive, to help us understand how things happen, and to showcase what it means to survive amid the rubble.